For people who care about good government, it’s been a bleak six months. Transparency has rarely been part of the ruling ethos in Washington, but secrecy has seldom been so en vogue. Information that politicians typically disclose — tax returns, lists of White House visitors, draft legislation — have disappeared. On-camera press briefings, presidential press conferences, answers to basic questions about administration positions — these have dried up, too.
In both Congress and the White House, officials have violated transparency norms with such regularity, and so little pushback, that it’s a wonder those norms were effective as long as they were.
It may feel pointless to push for openness in a Washington that is so invested in secrecy. But there are reasons to be hopeful. Stonewalling by the Trump administration has already infuriated Congress. “Why are you not answering these questions?” Democratic Sen. Angus King barked in a testy exchange with Trump’s NSA director, Adm. Michael Rogers, in a recent hearing probing whether President Donald Trump has tried to slow or stop the investigation into his administration’s possible ties with Russia. “What is classified about a conversation involving whether or not should you should intervene in the FBI investigation?”
And Democrats aren’t the only ones fuming. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican congressman who built his career investigating the Obama administration, recently threw his hands up over obstructionism from the Trump White House. After years of hounding the Obama administration for information about various controversies (and pseudo-controversies), he’d expected the Trump administration to be more open. “In many ways, it’s almost worse,” he said.
In the past, aggressive secrecy has led to a reformist backlash, triggering leaks, hearings, and ultimately government change. As Americans lost faith in their government in the 1960s and 1970s, they supported new legislation to ensure transparency, including the Freedom of Information Act and the Sunshine Law — and to create ethical rules. How they did so can provide a roadmap to transparency advocates seeking to wrench open the window of reform today.
Secrecy flourished as the national-security state grew
When people trusted government, secrecy flourished. The new national security state, formalized by the 1947 National Security Act, built up an intelligence regime that thrived on tightly held information. The press colluded with this secrecy in large ways and small, covering up illnesses and affairs, obsequiously deferring to government officials. Kennett Love, a reporter for the New York Times stationed in Iran during the 1953 coup, admitted that his bureau chief told him soon afterward that the CIA had helped to overthrow the democratically elected government in Tehran, but neither ever wrote about it.
Reporters and news executives didn’t just keep state secrets in the 1950s and 1960s — they collected them. At least 22 American news organizations employed journalists who reported to the CIA, like Austin Goodrich, a stringer at CBS News who was a “journalist-spy,” working undercover for the agency while filing reports about Scandinavia, including pieces on Soviet influence in the region.
In 1951, Harry Truman issued an executive order that created the system for classifying government information that exists to this day. It allowed the government to label information confidential, secret, or top secret, thereby creating an incentive to pull more and more information out of the public domain. Today, some 77 million documents are classified every year, although experts believe the majority of those documents should be available to the public.
But even by the late 1950s, some government officials worried that far too much information was being made secret.
The leader in that early fight for more transparency was Rep. John Moss, a California Democrat who entered office in 1953. Moss was particularly concerned about the way President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s executive branch was refusing to answer questions from reporters, or even Congress
Moss, who sat on the Civil Service Committee, wanted to investigate charges made by Republicans that Harry Truman had turned a blind eye to the problem of subversive government employees. He wanted to dispel the innuendo, but when he asked for information from the Civil Service Commission, the agency denied his request. He was stunned. How could one part of the government deny a legitimate request for information from another part?
Stonewalling by Republican and Democratic administrations alike inspired the Freedom of Information Act
When John F. Kennedy was president, Moss was no less fierce in his criticisms about secrecy, arguing that Kennedy built on the practices the Eisenhower administration had pioneered. Early in the Kennedy administration, Moss challenged the restrictions placed on pool reporters during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A year later, frustrated with the practice of government officials claiming executive privilege in order to withhold information, he pressured Kennedy to issue a statement clarifying that only the president could invoke executive privilege. (Intelligence officials in the recent Russia investigation nearly reverted to the practice Moss complained about, refusing to answer questions about conversations with President Trump even as they stopped short of explicitly claiming executive privilege.)
The legislation that emerged from Moss’s efforts, the Freedom of Information Act, met fierce opposition from federal agencies when it was proposed in 1966, but had strong backing from journalists and from Congress. The bill passed the House 307-0. It affirmed that any person had the right to request information and records from federal agencies, and that the agencies had to disclose that information. It was a powerful statement of the public’s right to know: Anyone could ask, for any reason, and the burden was on the government to show cause for withholding information.
FOIA was the result of a 12-year fight against a system that Americans inherently trusted. As trust in government collapsed, journalists and activists began to wield it more aggressively — especially after the law was amended in 1974 to give the act more teeth.
A government official used a FOIA request to gain access to summaries of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s secret files, which revealed that Hoover kept extensive records about the sex lives of prominent figures and government officials — including himself (he tracked rumors that he was gay). The CIA quickly became a target of FOIA requests, and newspapers were soon thick with stories about the agency’s often bizarre work.
A 1977 report revealed that the CIA had been pursuing mind-control efforts, with goals ranging from eliciting information to changing people’s sexual habits and desires. Thanks to FOIA, Americans began to learn details of CIA-backed coups in Latin America and the Middle East.
Two early-1970s revelations of government misdeeds in particular drove the modern push for more transparent government: news of domestic spying by intelligence agencies and the Watergate scandal.
In the 1960s, the NSA had launched Project Minaret, a program for monitoring, without a warrant, the communications of high-profile Americans like Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, as well as journalists and politicians. Another NSA program, Project Shamrock, scooped up every foreign telegram sent to the United States. Meanwhile, FBI and CIA agents were infiltrating the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the anti-war movement.
Secret misconduct in the 1960s and into the ’70s led to leaks and federal reform
Regimes of secrecy inevitably spring leaks, either because government workers feel important information is being withheld from the public (as when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers), or because they see corruption behind closed doors. That was what led Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer, to publish details of domestic surveillance in 1970.
Pyle penned an explosive exposé for the Washington Monthly about the close monitoring of American activists by the Army. Domestic spying, he wrote, “jeopardizes individual rights, democratic political processes, and even the national security it seeks to protect.”
These revelations led Sen. Sam Ervin, an arch-segregationist and privacy crusader, to press for more details about the program. Frustrated by stonewalling from the Pentagon and the Nixon White House, Ervin decided to hold public hearings. They produced no dramatic disclosures, but they did inspire reporters like Seymour Hersh of the New York Times to start digging.
The result was Hersh’s groundbreaking, leak-filled story for the New York Times in December 1974, which detailed “a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation” by the CIA, in direct violation of its charter (which restricts it to spying abroad).
Hersh’s article led to the Church Committee hearings, which laid bare abuses of power within the intelligence agencies — including their targeting of groups like the Black Panthers, and anti-war activists. They also uncovered the CIA’s role in assassination plots against foreign leaders, including efforts to kill Fidel Castro using poisoned cigars and exploding seashells.
And, in turn, the Church Committee hearings inspired institutional reforms: the creation of intelligence committees to provide congressional oversight over the FBI, CIA, and NSA , and the creation of courts through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to provide judicial oversight. (Intelligence officials are required to obtain warrants from FISA courts for any wiretaps or surveillance.)
In the wake of Watergate, Democrats swept the 1974 midterms, filling the Congress with new officeholders dubbed “Watergate babies,” who pushed hard for major open-records legislation: the expansion of FOIA, an Ethics in Government Act to require financial disclosures, and the Presidential Records Act to preserve all government documents. New laws checked the president’s war-making powers (in theory, at least) and empowered Congress and the courts to appoint special prosecutors.
No reform lasts forever. The FISA courts became rubber-stamp formalities and, after the September 11 attacks, intelligence agencies wrested back power. Intelligence agencies grew quickly — the Defense Intelligence Agency went from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 by 2010. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush signed off on NSA spying without a warrant, sidestepped disclosure requirements, and authorized torture.
Again, the drift toward secrecy was bipartisan. The Obama administration aggressively prosecuted leakers and whistleblowers. It used the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute government employees for leaking information to the media more than any administration since its passage. Journalists were caught up in these investigations as well.
And now the Trump administration appears intent on walling off as much information as possible, working assiduously to conceal the president’s visitors, his business and financial entanglements, and even details of executive orders and policies until they go into effect (like the travel ban, which is still being litigated).
Anti-secrecy reformers have been hard at work over the past decade or so, pushing for whistleblower protections (some of which they gained in the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act) and transparency laws while calling attention to the massive overclassification problem. And more and more Americans are coming to realize that “norms” — like the decades-old tradition of presidents releasing their financial records — aren’t worth much in the face of resistance.
Much of that current activism is happening at the state and local level, but ultimately federal reforms are required to crack the secrecy of the federal government. Now is the time to step up the public campaign against secrecy while also working out the nuts and bolts of reform legislation, so that when a new generation of Mar-a-Lago babies arrive in Washington, they will be able to move quickly to not only restore the norms that have been shredded in recent years, but to harden those norms into laws.
Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.